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The Big Idea: James Kakalios

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 05/17/2017 - 09:08
Physics happens — today and every day. But how much do you think about the physics of your ordinary day? James Kakalios thinks about it a lot, and after this Big Idea piece for his latest book The Physics of Everyday Things, you might think about it more often, too. JAMES KAKALIOS: My motivation to […]

The Big Idea: Megan Whalen Turner

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 05/16/2017 - 08:21
Sometimes the Big Ideas for books have their origin in other books, and how those books inspire us when we write our own. For her new book Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner reaches back to a favorite author and how that writer’s big idea laid the groundwork for hers. MEGAN WHALEN TURNER: Back in […]

Robots vs. Fairies: I’m In This

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 05/15/2017 - 15:04
Saga Press today announced a new anthology called Robots vs. Fairies, in which, as you might expect, there are stories about robots, and stories about fairies, and perhaps a few with robots and fairies. The anthology includes a story by me, entitled “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind From the Human Era for the First […]

Mother’s Day 2017

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 05/14/2017 - 10:54
This is my Wonder Woman.  To mothers and the people who love them, have a fantastic day.

A world Cyber Collapse? And Jerry Brown: President in exile

Contrary Brin - Sat, 05/13/2017 - 19:51
Yes, the title of this posting is an odd juxtaposition. On Friday a ferocious ransomware attack crippled thousands of computer networks around the world, including Britain's National Health System. So, what does this cyber-blitz -- long predicted in sci fi -- have to do with California's spectacularly successful, popular and effective governor?

It's simple. There are matters - like cyber security - in which we cannot wait for the natural election cycles to replace bad leadership. Someone  is going to have to step up and speak for us, and I suspect we'll see nothing useful out of Washington, for quite some time.

First though, some good news. While the U.S. federal admministration thrashes and flails in a state of near-collapse, we need to remember our strengths:

1) Civil servants and other professionals continue to do their jobs. Ranging from the FBI and Intelligence Community to energy researchers to diplomats to scientists, teachers, journalists and military officers - our skilled women and men out there are coming to terms with the real lesson of the Comey Affair... that the president can only fire or bully so many people. In fact, that bolt is largely shot. If he tries going on a "you're fired" rampage, Donald Trump must know that John McCain and other GOP adults will reach their fed-up limit. At which point they will lead a counter-attack against him. Anyway - as Comey is realizing - being fired by Donald Trump is likely to open career opportunities for him, not close them.

Yes, the Confederacy has achieved a major Putin-Koch objective, just by throwing grit in the machinery. Trump pleases his masters, even if all he can accomplish is slamming the U.S. federal government down to grinding first gear. Make no mistake, we're being harmed.

2) But there are other strengths to our federal system. In fact, much of the damage can be bypassed.

No, I'm not talking about Congress, or even the Supreme Court... though a day will come when three men -- Roberts, Alito and Gorsuch -- will have to choose between loyalty to a gone-insane conservative movement and faithfulness to the great enlightenment experiment that is America.  But we aren't there yet, and there is no telling whether they will pass that test. (I would bet against it.)

No, the hidden strength I am talking about is federalism. The fact that states have a great deal of power and potential, even in this modern age. And to make this clear, let me tell you about something called the Uniform Business Code.

== Treaties Among (semi) Sovereign States ==

Commencing during the Second World War, state governments sent experts to conferences where they negotiated a number of uniform acts that 'harmonize the law of sales and other commercial transactions across the U.S.'  This meant that businesses and individuals could compete or cooperate, buy-and-sell, with confidence across state lines.  

Over the decades since, adjustments have been worked out so calmly and effectively that most members of the public aren't even aware of the UBC.  We learn in school that the federal government has laid its meddlesome hand down, through the "commerce clause" of the Constitution. But in fact, the UBC is more pervasive. It is applied to far more matters than federal environmental, safety and other regulations, every day. Moreover, it is just one of many joint projects of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) and the American Law Institute (ALI). 

Nor are uniform codes the only way in which U.S. states act to bypass Washington. I am far from an expert on this (and any mavens are welcome to weigh in below, under comments.) But such inter-state accords range from water rights to joint hydroelectric and transportation projects all the way to recent agreements about marijuana deregulation rules. And while these endeavors do have to take into account acts of Congress, they have often been used to bypass the gridlock of Washington.

(An aside: I also think states should be more bold about doing experiments that are different and not uniform. Colorado and Oregon led the way out of our stupid Marijuana War. There are countless other experiments that could be parceled out to states.)

Alas, such pragmatic treaties used to happen more often, back in those halcyon days when the Conference of Governors was a working group of 50 adults, instead of a conclave of posturing-partisan prima donnas. Today, the divide among states could not be more sharp. And not just as a matter of 'left-vs.-right dogma, but far more about competence versus incompetence and sane versus insane.

Take actual outcomes. Despite a few outliers, like Texas and Utah, most states that have deep-red governments -- governor and legislature -- have had gruesomely awful results, the last few decades. Those doing best among them, like Virginia and North Carolina, have been turning purple, fast. Those doing worst -- including the deep Confederate South and Kansas and Oklahoma -- are sinking fast.  Meanwhile, pure-blue states along the coasts appear to be doing great, and not only where it comes to budget balancing and investing in people. Any libertarian-leaning person is a hypocrite, if he or she fails to notice which states are finally backing out of the loony-catastrophic so-called War on Drugs.

Which brings us full circle back the California's Governor Jerry Brown, whose fourth tenure in Sacramento is so successful, we all would have plotzed to have him be the Democratic Party nominee for President, in 2016, despite his age. But okay, that's done. So why do I call him "president in exile"?

== Put it all together ==

We must face a harsh truth.  We are currently in phase eight of the Civil War, a recurring national fever that has broken out in America ever since 1778. Washington is in confederate hands and -- as usual -- the Union is late responding, slow to anger and at a loss where to find its generals.

Well, until we can locate our ideal combination of Lincoln and T. Roosevelt and F. Roosevelt and Ike, we'll have to make do. And right now, blatantly, by every metric of population, success and delighted citizenry, there is one leader of Blue America, if only he would stand up to take the position he has earned.

Jerry Brown is -- de facto -- president in exile of what remains of the United States of America.  Moreover, it is time to slap him into realizing it.

Is the U.S. federal government being deliberately frozen and rendered impotent by (at best) fools or else (at-worst) traitors?  Sure. Shall we just march and scream and tell jokes on late-night TV? Or might we use tools that are already in place?

Oh, sure, Jerry Brown cannot call an emergency meeting of the National Governor's Conference. A majority of the attendees are Republican dogmatists who seem bent on dragging their states down a toilet swirl of cheating and failed ideology. But there is a Democratic Governors Association -- a small group, chaired by CT Gov. Dan Malloy -- and it would be a start.   

Sure, there are plenty of pragmatic matters generally on the agenda, when the governors of active, and not confederate, states meet. But I assert it is time for more than that. It's time for this group to make plain that they intend to provide a nucleus for action in defense of the American Experiment. And yes -- if need be -- in that noble endeavor's defense.

Example #1 - the Affordable Care Act is not dead, yet. Nor would the House bill kill it completely. Blue States can step in, on a dozen issues. Foremost among these: All it will take to "save the ACA insurance markets" will be for these states to impose their own individual mandate penalty tax on young people who shirk buying insurance. Sure it's risky.  But blue state youths are very solidly democratic. And if they were to join the insurance pool in large numbers, state-centered versions of the ACA won't "explode" as Trump raves that he wants them to.  At least not in those states.  And the contrast with places like Kansas will soar beyond anyone's ability to ignore.

But that's not today's main point -- a matter of national security.

Which brings us back to Friday's massive cyber attack. What can a dozen governors do about what is clearly a national and international problem?

Well, these blue states combined have the world's fourth biggest economy. They hold the world's greatest universities and research institutions and the most tech savvy populace. They provide most of the tax revenue that the rest of America utterly relies upon, as well as nearly all of the productivity and inventiveness. A point that could be made very clear if Jerry Brown went on TV and did the job that Donald Trump is supposedly there to do.

== Tell us to get clean! ==

Talk to computer security experts and they will tell you that most of our vulnerability today comes from both citizens and companies being lax about updating their security software. Millions of home and office computers are now suborned into participating in "botnets" or networks of surreptitiously connected machines, that criminals or foreign governments then use to transmit and amplify their attacks.  For whatever the reason -- generally laziness -- those corporations and individual users cannot be bothered to do simple things that would prevent their machines from being taken over.  

In legal terms, that is negligent-complicit participation in crime. And it is a cancer in our society, as we saw, last Friday. Moreover, the solution is obvious! Someone we trust - who has some authority - needs to go online and on TV to say:

"Those of you out there who have negligently allowed your computers to become hackable have opened opportunities for criminals and parasites to prey on others, and upon your communities, states and nation. I am not here to propose making that negligence a criminal offense. But I will now warn you that you can no longer claim ignorance as an excuse. Moreover, I am asking that state legislatures pass the following amendment to tort or civil law.

"If you take basic precautions, annually, to maintain your system's security updates and use any of a dozen state-measured anti-hacking programs, then that good faith effort will be enough to leave private individuals and most small businesses non-culpable for damages from future botnet attacks, even if their systems wind up being used by clever hackers that the security companies missed.

"But if you have not done basic security updates, and your system is used to infect others, then you will bear a proportionate share of the damages that eventually are awarded to victims of such crimes. Moreover, this responsibility will apply to any interests that out-of-state parties have in California, or any other member of our group of states."

There you have it. Three paragraphs. I promise you, the very next day millions of lazy people and companies would rush to update their systems and to run security programs! Within a week, many if not most of the botnets operating in America would be severely undermined, if not crippled. And tens of millions of Americans will be safer, by the way.

Why am I combining two topics today, by asking Jerry Brown to make this public statement? Isn't this a matter for the President of the United States, or some other high, national official?

Think about and answer that question for yourself. 

 It's not just that we have a sabotaged and crippled national government, at-best incompetent and at-worst treasonous. It is that this matter cannot wait!  And yes, okay, I would also love to see Jerry do something nationally memorable. There is even a chance that Blue America -- which now includes every single fact-using profession -- might rally around him as an elder statesman who has no ambitions for 2020. 

Well, well.  It's a fantasy. Like the dream that was America. Like the palpably successful dream called California.

== Jerry's Evil Conterpart ==

That should suffice for today. But first, a note about someone who is just as smart... in service of evil.

Do I still call George F. Will "The Worst Man in America," when he applies his sharp pen to eviscerating Donald Trump? In this case, his diagnosis is acid:

"This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence."

Given how much I agree with Will's assessment of DT, might I retract my own aspersions aimed at George Will?

Consider them doubled. This brilliant wit dedicated his adult life to undermining the equally brilliant clades - from science and medicine to investigative journalism - that engendered most of our wealth, achievements and power. His rationalizations helped fuel the War on Science and now every fact-based profession. His scalpel pierced deepest, in the steady lobotomization of American conservatism.

In denouncing Trump, Mr. Will expresses outrage that an impudent upstart leapt into the saddle of confederate, anti-intellectual populism -- a rabid, frothing beast that the lords of the right thought to be their private steed... just as the Junkers Prussian nobility were appalled when a raving rider seized the reins of German populism, in the 1930s. In both cases, the first victim was sensible, rational conservatism. The version of conservatism that Mr. Will claims to represent, but that he has systematically assassinated.

George Will's unctuous pleadings for oligarchy - and excuses for wealth disparity rivaling 1789 France - persuaded many of today's aristocratic morons to believe what their egos and sycophants told them. Despite history's lesson, they think that this time  they'll do neo-feudalism right, by pounding the great American middle class that the Greatest Generation built, and by inciting populist rage against the fact-using, "smartaleck elites."

Of course the only possible outcome from this lunatic-stupid oligarchic putsch is that they will wind up riding tumbrels.

Wait... is it possible that was George Will's intent, all along? As in that famous Tom Tomorrow cartoon? I never said he wasn't clever! But no. This is why he is the Worst Man in America. Instinct nor reflex nor dullard rationalization made him do all this. He brought us here with open eyes. And now, his horrified denunciations of Trump are like Viktor Frankenstein screaming at his monster.

You did this. Deal with that fact. Then maybe we'll listen.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Hey, Wanna Watch Me and Cory Doctorow Talk for an Hour About Super Nerdy Stuff?

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 05/13/2017 - 15:29
Sure you do! Here you go. This is from when Cory and I did a stop together at Google during our book tours.

Diversity, Appropriation, Canada (and Me)

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 05/13/2017 - 13:01
So, I’ve been following this thing that’s been happening in Canada, where (briefly), Hal Niedviecki, a white editor of a literary magazine, in an edition of the magazine focusing on the indigenous writers of Canada, wrote an editorial in which he encouraged white writers to include characters who weren’t like them, saying “I’d go so […]

That James Comey Thing

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 05/13/2017 - 09:38
I tried writing about the James Comey firing earlier in the week and got mostly a lot of GRWARRRRGHNNNNGHFFFFFK out of it, so I decided to let it be, and anyway, at this point there’s very little to add to it that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, mostly relating to Trump being incompetent, possibly criminal, […]

New Books and ARCs, 5/12/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 05/12/2017 - 17:23
Hey, look! More books and ARCs! Who’d’ve thought? If you see something here you have an interest in, tell us all in the comments. We want to know.

The Dispatcher a Locus Award Nominee!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 05/12/2017 - 15:51
In the “novella” category. I’m super pleased. Here are the other finalists in the category: The Lost Child of Lychford, Paul Cornell (Tor.com Publishing) The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing) Hammers on Bone, Cassandra Khaw (Tor.com Publishing) The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing) Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan […]

A Senior Day Moment

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 05/12/2017 - 15:10
Not graduation day; don’t let the robes fool you. Senior day is the day the seniors are handed out their awards and scholarships, take their final class pictures, and then are dismissed until graduation day, two weeks hence. Technically Athena has already graduated — she finished up a semester early — but she’s walking with […]

Will we continue an Enlightenment Civilization... or return to Feudalism?

Contrary Brin - Thu, 05/11/2017 - 17:30
Seventy years of Pax Americana and a rising enlightenment civilization, based on science and fact and at least somewhat-mature argument, were never easy to maintain. Another seventy and we'd likely stabilize into something truly amazing and grownup -- perhaps able to solve the Fermi Paradox, by heading out into the galaxy.  
But behind us lie 6000 years of feudalism in which secretive cheaters and thugs and razzle-dazzle artists wrecked every glimmering renaissance. And before that, 200,000 years of caveman scratching in the dirt.
The feudalist oligarchs know this is their last chance to restore aristocratic-priestly rule.  Spreading education and light will give us Star Trek, so they are acting hard, now, in an arc that stretches from Manilla and Siberia to Moscow (the center), Ankara, Tehran... and now our own captured White House.
"Donald Trump appears to have made a cynical calculation that he will not pay a high political price for being the most secretive president since Richard Nixon." -- reports The Washington Post.

What? You expected me - as "Mr. Transparency" - to disapprove? Fact is, he has done us a favor by making things so stark, turning this whole thing into a massive IQ test.
You are among those being tested, my fellow citizens. If those in the Greatest Generation could pass their trials... we can pass ours.
= The Fukuyama Syndrome – clinging to a movement that’s gone mad =

Stanford University historian Frances Fukuyama - who famously wrote in The End of History and The Last Man that “history” as such would end in the early 21st Century, as liberal-market democracy took over around the world — was on NPR in early April. Not happy at all with Trump, or the state or things in general — he also flails about, eager to rationalize that none of this could possibly be his fault! As always, Fukuyama is very smart and has interesting things to say. And - again, as always — he turns out to be the same Bushite court intellectual, diverting attention away from the culprits who re-ignited a debilitating, almost-hot phase of the American Civil War.

As a faithful servant of the oligarchic caste, the last thing this history professor will ever glance at is the central, historical fact of 6000 years —  that the great enemy of liberal democracy and enlightenment and flat-fair market competition has always been cabals of conniving and conspiring aristocratic cheaters, whether they be the king-cronies that real Tea Partiers rebelled against, in 1775, or the plantation lords of 1861, or czarist boyars, or the Marxist commissars who replaced them exactly a century ago (with a few superficial changes of nomenclature).

Fukuyama’s aristocratism reveals itself  in paragraph after paragraph, as he attributes the victory of Donald Trump to ‘democracy.’ And thus, he accomplishes three insidious goals. First, while frowning in disapproval, he also validates that Trumpian triumph ‘as popular will,’ ignoring the fact that American voters have sanctioned Republican control of the Presidency and Congress with actual majorities only once out of the last seven elections, and decidedly not this one.

Second is the correlated fact that the GOP Lords have accomplished all this by cheating. Top to bottom, inside-out, via gerrymandering, weaponized fakery, voter suppression, rigged voting machines, dirty tricks, collusion with hostile foreign powers and their open war on all “fact” professions.  Of course, this is bringing us steadily closer to the same suite of methods that were used by oligarchs across history — e.g. Roman elites contorting the will of supposedly sovereign citizens. Indeed, Prof. Fukayama’s patrons are replicating exactly the same mafia methods that maintain Putinist dominance in Russia… and their seizure of power in the USA.

But the richest sub-text offered by this subtly manipulative Machiavelli-to-New-Medicis comes via implication number three. By deriding the Trump putsch result as 'populism,’ Prof. Fukayama lays groundwork for the Big Narrative that will pour forth when Trumpism spectacularly fails. A narrative that populism — and hence popular will and hence democracy — cannot be trusted.  This propaganda already pours from Moscow and Beijing — that there is no true democracy and mobs are dangerous. Those reactionary centers already cite Trumpism as proof! When in fact…

…all that these recent calamities demonstrate is that civil war is the great American failure mode.  That it this 250-year, recurring fever is psychological and cultural, not based upon logic or self-interest. And that the Confederacy can be re-ignited out of one-third of America, the third that truly is a gullible mob.


Oh, Francis Fukayhama does allude to 'wealth & power’ in the following: “Quite honestly, you know, well before Donald Trump began saying this, it wasn't working well. You know, Congress couldn't pass budgets, it couldn't - you know, it was very deadlocked. Plus - which I think there's a general feeling that interest groups, people with a lot of wealth and power, have a disproportionate say in the way that our democracy works. And so all of these put together, the institutional shortcomings and the socio-economic impacts of globalization, I think, prepared the ground for a rise of a populist.”

Only notice how he thereby portrays Trump’s “populist” surge as resistance against that wealth and power, instead of frenetic subservience to oligarchic lordship, which has always been the confederate theme.
== Recurring Russia ==

From the Global Post: "Writing from Moscow, Fyodor Lukyanov warns that Russia and the United States are not only back to their old and “normal” ways of confrontation, but could also clash militarily in Syria if the U.S. intervenes further. He is cynical about the impetus of the missile strike on a Syrian air base that boosted Trump’s presidential stature. “Having encountered challenges in implementing his domestic political agenda,” Lukyanov writes, “Trump decided to use foreign policy as an instrument for improving the political atmosphere around his administration.” Lukyanov further cautions against any perception that U.S. actions will force Russian President Vladimir Putin to rein in Syria’s President Bashar Assad: “For Trump, an agreement can only be reached from a position of strength. But for Putin, there can be no agreement under pressure. ... If pressure keeps growing, Russia will respond in its own manner ― asymmetrically and sharply.”
Lukyanov is smart but nowhere near cynical enough.  Think.  Try to think about who benefits. Putin has had one victory and new asset that is more valuable than any other.  He can see his Siberian Candidate President slipping away, as American immune systems - FBI investigations and leaks - threaten everything he's gained by controlling Donald Trump.  He must preserve his queen and that is worth sacrificing a few very minor pawns at one end of a mostly-empty Syrian airbase.  
Especially since this recent event let him also: (1) study our tomohawk missiles under controlled conditions, (2) cement further ties with the Iranian Mullahs, and (3) unleash some Assad gassings as the pretext to make Trump look tough and this save Trump while eliminating some of Assad's enemies.
Jeez, does it take a novelist to see what should be obvious? Always look at who gets the win-win-win.
== Sci fi prescience ==
The recently re-issued 1980 spy novel The Twentieth Day of January, by British author Ted Allbeury, contains some mind-blowing passages about a Moscow controlled Siberian Candidate —   

Identified by the Soviet spy chief as a man who “wishes to be in politics for business reasons.” The vain and superficial new president ‘Powell,’ says a Washington insider, “just came out of nowhere. He was one of six or seven possible runners. A complete outsider, then—boom, he was the Republican candidate,” with the added appeal of not being a professional politician. 

"Meanwhile, Powell’s wife, who doesn’t like the political world and from whom he leads a separate life, remains in the family home with their young son instead of moving to Washington.” … “The new president, according to his campaign manager-cum-sleeper agent Andrew Dempsey, enjoys the trappings of office “like a kid in a toy shop” but is somewhat fuzzier on policy beyond promising “to slash taxes, cut unemployment, and achieve peace on earth.”
It’s not quite the same level of stunning prescience that I credited earlier to Robert Heinlein, in his astonishing afterword to REVOLT IN 2100. But still, chilling and thought-provoking and something to buy for that uncle of yours.
== Political miscellany amid civil war ==
73% of deadly terrorist incidents since September 12, 2001 were committed by far right extremist groups. 

The wrongly convicted man portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss in the stage play of "Exonerated" is now free, but Texas authorities haven't yet revised his record so he is still a murderer on paper.  Dreyfuss asks that people raise a fuss.
Someone wrote in to tell me that my suggestion regarding the Electoral College would have improved the recent election results, but not crucially.  “If All States Voted Like Maine and Nebraska: Trump 290 Clinton 248.”
Very interesting!  Only note:
1- Trump's Electoral College tally does drop.
2- Distributing electors with two at-large per state retains the inherent gerrymandering of the Senate, wherein small-rural states get a huge advantage.

3- These results are especially pernicious because the rest of the electors are allocated to gerrymandered congressional districts, reflecting the rigging that already has made the U.S. House of Representatives a warped betrayal of the will of the people.

== Special counsels and investigators ==

And no, I have little  to say about the Comey firing thing. Not right now. Except to point out that members of the intelligence communities will not be easily cowed.

Post Watergate there was a law that allowed three federal judges to appoint an independent counsel. The law was then used to set SIX IC's to work, hounding Bill Clinton and five of his cabinet secretaries... with the result that... all they found was that Clinton lied about some third-base nookie in a hallway. That's it.  


Name one other time in American — or human — history, when an administration spanning 8 years had zero scandals or indictments concerning malfeasance in the performance of official duties.  It has happened twice in American — or human — history. The administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  Name another!
After enduring 7 years of these trumped-up witch hunts, the democrats fell for the real reason for it all, the trap.  They went along with canceling the special counsel law.  Which was the GOP's aim, all along.  Now that law is history and it can only be done within the Justice Department, headed by Jeff False-Recusal Sessions.
Well, well. The more you know.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

The Big Idea: Michele Tracy Berger

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 05/11/2017 - 10:00
Hair matters, in a lots of ways we (or, well, I, a balding middle-aged white dude) don’t often think about. But Michele Tracy Berger has, and has made it central to her novella, Reenu-You. She’s here now to talk a little about hair, about culture, and about her work featuring both. MICHELE TRACY BERGER: What […]

48

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 05/10/2017 - 10:44
My 47th year was a pretty productive one: Three books of mine were published (The Dispatcher, in both audio and print; Miniatures; and of course The Collapsing Empire), one video game I worked on was released (Midnight Star: Renegade), I toured all around the country and saw lots of people, I had some work optioned […]

Solving problems: Energy, Climate and Remaking the Planet

Contrary Brin - Tue, 05/09/2017 - 15:07
Here is another science posting, with lots of amazing news. But nowadays, it is impossible to do this without politics foaming over the rim. And so, to start off --

In honor of the French populace, and the favor they just did us all, can we finally get rid of their worst curse upon civilization? The insipidly misleading and lobotomizing "left-right political axis"? Given that every metric of entrepreneurial markets and creative enterprise does better under democrats, what purpose does the metaphor serve? And is there a better explanation for America's Blue-Red divide?

 Democrats held both Congress and the White House for only two of the last 22 years. Only four of the last 37. And yet, they were busy. Their salient trait is not to be “leftist” – (judge by actual outcomes) – but rather to be manic, scurrying around to address problems during their limited time in power.  Hence, we should note the science-tech actions taken just during the 2009-2011 span.
Sci-tech-related actions include the CAFÉ increases in fleet efficiency standards that Republicans claimed would “destroy the US auto industry.”  Recall that just a year earlier, the GOP opposed the federal government making secured loans to GM and Chrysler (loans that were paid back), shouting let ‘em go under!”  Those efficiency standards made all our cars vastly more economical, saving drivers billions, while reducing pollution and all of it while US autos got ever-better, safer, more luxurious and cheaper in constant dollars… oh and while U.S. carmakers made fine profits.
Likewise, several bills passed during those two years that stimulated the sustainable energy markets, so much so that we now appear to be verging on a “solar singularity.” That is the moment when the incredible acceleration of sustainable power supplies (including wind) gains unstoppable momentum. More jobs are being created in solar than have been lost in coal, by an order of magnitude. See the stats; they are quite impressive.
Following an amazing 30-fold increase in PV sales over the past nine years, the solar industry in the U.S. now employs more than 260,000 workers nationwide. That’s more workers than Apple, Facebook, and Google combined. Far more than the 80,000 still laboring in coal. This spectacular rise -- declared impossible under the bushites -- was unleashed by the democrats' brief, manic time in power -- 2009-2010 -- and protected under Obama.

It is too late for the oil sheiks and coal barons and their paid shills to stop it.  Because Adam Smith is now aboard.  There is vastly more money to be made in renewables than in fossil fuel development. Sorry dinosaurs. Sorry fossils.
Though I am still worried about resilience. A million solar homes in the US will shut down in the event of a power blackout, instead of providing islands of power for their neighborhoods.   We should not have to wait for cheap battery packs in order to fix this, when a $25 switch would suffice, in the short term.
But there’s more energy efficiency news, as TESLA Motors announces the soon-to-come unveiling of a project to make all-electric “semi”trucks to haul cargo with unprecedented efficiency.
The troglodyte lords who are trying to drag us back into feudalism, while heaping scorn upon all of the fact and knowledge castes, don’t get it.  If you guys succeed, you won’t like to see us when we’re mad.  But you’re safe. Because you will fail.
== Energy and Climate ==

"2,250 square miles of coastal Louisiana is expected to be lost" in the next 50 years. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has declared a state of emergency over the state's rapidly eroding coastline. Oh, and the US Navy is desperately worried about 12 new Russian bases on the nearly ice-free Arctic.

Tesla unveils an enormous solar farm on Kauai. Meanwhile, solar energy prices worldwide have dropped by 58 percent over the past five years.  China is currently the largest producer of solar energy in the world, while the U.S. nearly doubled its own yearly increase, with some states showing remarkable growth. In particula, New York increased its solar power use by more than 800 percent.

There's been remarkable progress in renewable energy in the U.S., with wind reaching nearly 50 percent of the country’s electric demand. “The US now joins countries like Scotland, who last year (intermittently) generated the nation’s entire electricity by wind alone, Denmark, whose installation of offshore wind turbines allowed them to power the whole country on just wind energy for a whole day, and other areas of Europe where wind power’s capacity has already overtaken coal.”
Shifting to climate: hypocrite-denialists cry: "There's not enough data to conclude humans cause climate change! It's premature!"  Not true. But okay then. Assuming that to be the case: (1) Should we DO nothing about a threat that 99% of experts believe... until it's 99.9%?  Or will you then move the goalposts to 99.99%?
(2) Do you want the data that could settle the matter? Under the Bushes, research was slashed and satellites sabotaged. But the Bushes were subtle compared to Trumpists, who have ordered NASA to drop all downward-looking missions and to banish the word "Earth."
"NASA's Earth-observing satellite programs (PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR, and CLARREO Pathfinder), which are mostly still in development, are toast."  Yep! If you cover your eyes and ears, problems go away!  If you don't LOOK at a hypocrisy, it doesn't exist.  Try that with a bullet..

Meanwhile, 53% of U.S. Senators and Representatives are climate change deniers.  Are your representatives on this list?

== Should we “fix” climate change? ==
Record-setting weather and climate events are occurring at an accelerating pace. And yes, those who actually study these things know darned well what the cause has to be.
One certainty.  When it becomes clear that they can no longer keep moving the goal posts and obfuscating, those who spent decades in the denialist cult will suddenly proclaim: “I never said it was faked! Only that we should try to fix it!”
Fix it implies “geo-engineering,” and already sides are digging trenches along un-sapient and rigid partisan lines, as described in this article.  “Scientists are investigating whether releasing tons of particulates into the atmosphere might be good for the planet. Not everyone thinks this is a good idea.”
Notice how the author stacks the deck, making “scientists” obsessive meddlers, like in some Crichton tale, while a brave few question the rush to fiddle with the planet. When in fact, the world consensus early (perhaps prematurely) coalesced around blocking even modest geoengineering experiments, for reasons of ideological prudity.  For a much better and more extensive exploration, see The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, by the Economist’s Oliver Morton. It was longlisted for the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize and shortlisted for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.

And yes, I just targeted a barb at a politically correct position of the left. As I said, that metaphor is just loopy and... wrong.
== Politics and Climate Change ==
This essay attempts to show that scientists need better tactics in explaining matters like climate change to the public.  And yet, I find the writer’s proposed methods to be little improvement:
Research also shows that science communicators can be more effective after they’ve gained the audience’s trust. With that in mind, it may be more worthwhile to figure out how to talk about science with people they already know, through, say, local and community interactions, than it is to try to publish explainers on national news sites.”
Sure, but the suggested methods are way too wimpy for this stage of a civil war, in which every fact-centered profession is under fire.  As the author himself shows:
“At a Heartland Institute conference last month, Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House science committee, told attendees he would now refer to “climate science” as “politically correct science,” to loud cheers. This lumps scientists in with the nebulous “left” and, as Daniel Engber pointed out in Slate about the March for Science, rebrands scientific authority as just another form of elitism.”
This kind of tactic needs ferocious, not tepid response. I find it effective to point out that half of the modern economy is built on scientific discoveries of this and earlier generations. And that Soviet tanks would have rolled across western Europe without our advantages provided by science.
I ask whether expert opinion should at least inform public policy, even if experts prove to be wrong, maybe 5% of the time. I ask them if we should listen to the US Navy, which totally believes in climate change, given that the Russians are building twelve new bases lining the now melting Arctic Sea.
I ask why, if they demand more proof of climate change, their leaders so desperately quash the satellites and cancel the instruments and ban the studies that could nail it down.
Sure, it pleases vanity to envision that scientists - in fact the most-competitive of humans - are sniveling “grant huggers.” But if that’s so, then:
1- Where is a listing of these so-called “grants”? After 20 years, no one has tabulated a list to show that every scientist believing in climate change has a climate grant?
2- What about meteorologists?  They are rich, powerful, with no need of measly “climate grants.” Their vast, sophisticated, world-spanning weather models rake in billions from not just governments but insurance companies, media and industry, who rely on the miracle ten day forecasts that have replaced the old, ridiculous four-hour “weather reports” of our youth.  These are among the greatest geniuses on the planet… and every single one of them is deeply worried about climate change.
3- Funny thing. The Koch brothers and other coal barons and oil sheiks have offered much larger grants” to any prestigious or widely respected scientists who will join the denialist cult… I mean camp.  None has accepted. So much for the “motivated by grants” theory.
I’ve weighed in elsewhere about how to deal with this cult. 

No, it's not "left-vs-right." Not when most of the tech entrepreneurs, who made billions actually creating new goods and services (instead of via parastitism and inheritance) are almost all democrats.

No. It is about sapient self interest. Calmly appraising outcomes.  And looking at which politicians hate on science.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

The Big Idea: Gregory Benford

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 05/09/2017 - 08:43
For author and scientist Gregory Benford, his new novel The Berlin Project isn’t just a matter of speculative fiction — Benford has some very real connections to the people and characters that play a role in his alternate history. Benford’s here to lay out where fact meets fiction meets friends and family in this tome. […]

Hitting Tech Sufficiency

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 05/08/2017 - 17:46
I was recently gifted with a Google Chromebook Pixel, which although now two years old is still the most specced-out Chromebook you can get (the version I received has an i7 processor, 16 gigs of ram and a 64GB SSD, as well as a retina-like touchscreen). I was delighted to get it, and can attest […]

The Big Idea: Carrie Patel

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 05/08/2017 - 06:18
During the thinking about and writing of The Song of the Dead, author Carrie Patel came to appreciate traffic jams. Why is that? And how did it help in the construction of her novel? Patel is here to tell you. CARRIE PATEL: One of my most vivid memories from grad school is of a negotiation […]

More Than Human? And science roundup!

Contrary Brin - Sun, 05/07/2017 - 14:57
First an announcement: Wednesday, May 10th I'll speak at the “Digital Revolution,” a free public forum that the Union-Tribune will hold at the University of San Diego’s Kroc Theater. It starts at 6:30 p.m. All you have to do is register online at uniontribune.com/future."

== More than we are? ==
Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface venture that was founded to allow humans to keep up with the advancements made in machines. The interface is intended to work by augmenting that which makes us human: our brains.  I've written extensively, in both science and fiction, about the quandaries of human consciousness and the murky, non-linear paths that might have brought us here. For example.
A panel has recommended the development of an A.I. index, analogous to the Consumer Price Index, to track the pace and spread of artificial intelligence technology. That technical assessment, they said, could then be combined with detailed data on skills and tasks involved in various occupations to guide education and job-training programs.
The Next Human: taking evolution into our own hands. National Geographic offers Beyond Human: how humans are shaping our own evolution. Read this excellent  article, which reviews human genetic change… how many ways we have changed - at the level of genes - since technologies began altering our way if life, letting us occupy Tibetan and Andean highlands or drink the milk of animals, or consume alcohol. The authors go on to examine how techniques like In Vitro Fertilization and CRISPR are opening the science fictional worlds of deliberate gene slicing.  

When asked whether this is ethical, Linda MacDonald Glenn, a bioethicist at California State University, Monterey Bay, comments; “For this sort of technology to be banned or not used is to suggest that evolution has been benign. That it somehow has been a positive. Oh Lord, it has not been! When you think of the pain and suffering that has come from so many mistakes, it boggles the mind.”
And it goes farther: Hundreds of people have radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices embedded in their bodies that allow them to unlock their doors or log on to their computers without touching anything. One company, Dangerous Things, claims to have sold 10,500 RFID chips, as well as do-it-yourself kits to install them under the skin. The people who buy them call themselves body hackers or grinders.” 

How soon to Molly, from Neuromancer?  Or even my dittoes from Kiln People? But oops, some things are predictable: “Another grinder …wants to implant a vibrator beneath his pubic bone and connect it via the web to others with similar implants."
Yeow. Very interesting article. Though alas, things are much more complicated. Take the implication that we can increase human lifespan and human intelligence by simply finding the right genetic (or nutrition) switches to flick. In both cases, indicators suggest the the smartest or longest lived humans are crowding against glass ceilings that will be very hard to shatter. 

Yes, certainly we have crashed through other limitations before!  But in the case of IQ, it seems that when smart people breed together, their odds of brainy offspring rise in company with their chances of having kids with problems like autism spectrum. (In Existence I portray how tech might overcome this by empowering autistic folks and freeing them.)
== Can we delay aging? ==
This could be among the scariest bits of science, especially in an era of rising aristocracy and wealth disparity. Researchers at Stanford University led by neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray showed in a 2014 study that infusions of blood from young mice reversed cognitive and neurological impairments seen in old ones.” 

If this brings to mind some of the 1950s science fiction tales about rich old coots having young men and women squeezed for their life essence (in some cases it was prescient about blood transfusions) then how about “parabiosis,” a bizarre technique in which two mice were sutured together in such as way that they shared a circulatory system - which found old mice joined to their youthful counterparts showed changes in gene activity making them more youthful. And the younger mice aged.
The article is more optimistic, showing preliminary evidence that the juvenizing factors may be in blood plasma, which millions of teens could easily donate to millions of elderly without it becoming a matter of being preyed upon.  Indeed, science might decipher the elixir components and synthesize them and that will be that… 

And now credible news that billionaire Peter Thiel may be trying it.
Only not so fast.  Results in mice almost never apply to humans, when it comes to lifespan extension - and there are reasons. Sorry.
A chemical switch to slow the aging of cells? Again and again I point out that human are probably slready using all these ‘low-hanging fruit” for lengthening lifespan. anti-senescence treatments that work in mice almost never do a thing in already methuselah humans. Now, to be fair, these results do seem to apply to human cells. Still, see my story "Chrysalis' in my collection, Insistence of Vision to see how this might not go as expected!
== Next Steps in Tech ==

Speaking of our generation's irreplaceable man... Elon Musk has revealed his new tunnel boring machine -- an ambitious plan aimed at reducing traffic congestion. I've thought a lot about tunneling over the years and we spoke about it recently. Though dinner was mostly about Mars.

Oh, and see the next transportation revolution… electric planes!
A game changer? Announced: a water harvester that uses only ambient sunlight to pull liters of water out of the air each day in conditions as low as 20 percent humidity.  
A team has invented a revolutionary way to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from air by triggering artificial photosynthesis in a synthetic material — breaking down carbon dioxide while also producing fuel.  Well, tentatively. 
Wish you had this in school? A tiny module you could put on a professor’s lectern and it not only records but transcribes the lecture as text.  Now to have an AI explain it all…
Remember this breakthrough. “Graphene oxide can be produced by simple oxidation in the lab. Then, as an ink or solution, it can be spread on a substrate or porous material. Use it as a membrane, and apparently it can separate salty from seawater. The sought-after development could aid the millions of people without ready access to clean drinking water.”
Have a look at the Deep Space Gateway, the habitat Boeing wants to send to cislunar space. It could house critical research for human exploration and could dock other vehicles using a system similar to the International Space Station’s, though more modern and compact and possibly apropos for  use as an interplanetary spacecraft.
American farmers are using Ukrainian hacker firmware to free their tractors from lock-in to John Deere for all repairs. Seven states are considering laws to allow people to hack or repair their own private property, an issue that has been riling libertarian spirits all over, and where I find my libertarian roots aroused.  Only note, the villains are not exactly "big bad government."
An accidental discovery of real potential importance. Wax worms can apparently eat and break down polyethylene plastic bags.
Deriving traces of human DNA(Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc) from ancient caves… but not from bones? Rather from dirt?  
Heroes of Science(!) action figures! Unfortunately, not yet available.

There. Down with the war on science and all of its practitioners.  They want all this to stop.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Prom 2017

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 05/07/2017 - 14:48
Athena and Hunter went and got all dressed up for their senior Prom night last night, and of course I had to take a tone of pictures, because that’s what I do. If you’re curious to see the results (and to look upon a fabulous Belle dress), the entire Flickr album is here. Enjoy!
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